The mysterious sewage spill that has fouled Huntington Beach since early July grew by a mile Wednesday, forcing lifeguards to shoo sunbathers from the waterline in the downtown area and threatening merchants with an economically disastrous Labor Day weekend.
The search has widened for the source of the pollution that now has a 4.2-mile stretch of shoreline off-limits to swimmers and surfers.
“Our business was cut in half because of the first closure. Now it’s just killed it,” said Jack Clapp, whose father opened Dwight’s concession stand in 1932.
County health officials ordered the extended closure at 4 p.m. after discovering bacteria levels four times the acceptable state standard. The shoreline is now closed from the Santa Ana River jetty to Goldenwest Street.
The source of the contamination continues to baffle health and sanitation officials, who met as a task force Wednesday with city, county and state delegates.
“All resources will be put into action to locate the source of the contamination and clean it so our beaches can once again be completely enjoyed by all,” Huntington Beach Mayor Peter Green said.
While the officials talked about welding and siphon inspections of underground pipelines, they also considered hiring a consultant to go door to door, especially among longtime residents who may have knowledge about old pipelines or septic tanks.
Officials even got an offer of help from a psychic. One woman called the Orange County Sanitation District saying she knew where the leak was, said Michelle Tuchman, a district spokeswoman.
“She wanted money,” Tuchman said. “Needless to say we didn’t hire her.”
Among the measures planned is a series of tests in which chemical dyes will be injected into the city’s sewer system, then sought offshore. Investigators also will use infrared devices designed to detect irregularities in the flow of ocean water.
U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, an avid surfer, toured the contaminated area Wednesday and said he will investigate whether federal resources might be available.
“I wouldn’t be so concerned if we knew the source,” said Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach).
He compared the situation to that in 1990, when the American Trader tanker spilled 416,000 gallons of oil, resulting in the county’s worst environmental disaster.
“When we had the tanker accident,” he said, “we knew what the problem was. This is a lot worse because we don’t know what we’re dealing with. It has the makings of a major financial crisis.”
Since the pollution was first detected July 1, officials have used video cameras, offshore boats equipped with sonar to seek uncharted pipelines and even ground-penetrating radar, to no avail.
“This is from an unknown amount and unknown source of raw or untreated sewage,” said Monica Mazur, an environmental health specialist with the Orange County Health Care Agency.
Of 17 sampling sites, the county Wednesday reported samples of enterococcus, an indicator of raw sewage and fecal material from warmblooded animals, that ranged from 60 to more than 400 bacteria per hundred milliliters. The acceptable level is 104.
The city’s tourism businesses could be devastated as swimmers, surfers and sunbathers are forced to go elsewhere. City officials say Huntington Beach draws about 11 million visitors annually, making it one of the state’s most popular stretches of shoreline.
Surfer Mark Skelton, 28, of Irvine and his buddy Scott Abeyta, 34, of Long Beach said they have noticed an odor in the water lately.
Anyone who defies the closure order risks a misdemeanor citation, said Richard Barnard, a city official.
Times correspondent Judy Silber contributed to this report.
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More Coast Closed
The Orange County Health Care Agency late Wednesday extended its closure of beaches to all of Huntington State Beach and Huntington City Beach south of Goldenwest Street.
Source: Orange County Health Care Agency